Small Town Punk: By John L. Sheppard, 211 pgs. By Todd Taylor

Since I both 1.) grew up in a small town and 2.) liked punk rock, I was excited to get this book. Before I even got to read it, I flipped through it several times. The chapter titles were clever; either song titles to punk classics, like Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” or nice twists like “Sarasota’s Alright If You Like Geezers” (from Fear’s, “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones.”) On the cover was a beat-up pair of Converse. By all means, judging this book by its cover, I was digging it.

After several chapters, something started to annoy me. There’s no doubt that John has natural talent. His dialogue is believable, his characters stand out from one another, the setting and pacing were all done well. In essence, he cleared the writing basics with flying colors. Then, as I turned more and more pages, it struck me. Buzz Pepper, the main character, is a major fucking asshole. Great, great, I know, I know, punks are “supposed” to be assholes. It’s even explicitly in the book: “My ambition was to antagonize as many people in life as I could. I was a sour young man, filled to my nostrils with hate, hate, hate.” But the main character is such a prick that his self-righteous hate and loathing cancels out every other emotion. The further I got in the book, the more I saw Buzz as flat and plain mean. Worse yet, the book is heartless. Buzz steals from his friends (pills mostly), and feels nothing for his extended family (“Another one of our relatives was dying, or some bullshit like that.”) Buzz loves visiting his grandparents so he can steal their pills. He makes fun of Japanese businessmen, asking if they’d lost something at a baggage carousel, then taunts them: “I think you lost a war!” He hates J.R.R. Tolkien and sci-fi nerds. He hates fat, Christian girls, ugly dykes, fascist school colleagues, and middle-aged fruits. He hates a “rat fuck” barber who just looks wrong and the hate is “justified” because he asks if Buzz likes Dungeons and Dragons. It’s all in there. Even characters Buzz claims to like are the sum total of what they can provide for him. When his sister, Sissy – quite possibly the most likeable character in the book – is killed in a Pizza Hut, he doesn’t seem too fazed and spends a grand total of one sentence memorializing her.

Okay, some people are stupid and dumb. Granted. Most of the people I know and cherish are marginalized by society as a whole. But the challenge – how I see it – is to share how one form of the punk rock lifestyle makes other people want to at least be with the character or listen to what they have to say beyond, “you’re a fucking asshole.” We all want to think we’re at least a little bit smarter, more wise than the general populace, that we’ve got a couple things figured out. Buzz is a self-centered, hot-tempered bore who provides no such insight.

Let’s put this in some context. I think that if anyone is setting out to write “punk fiction,” they’re already at a disadvantage. Perhaps because I read Small Town Punk between Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat and a Richard Brautigan omnibus, it just seemed so tiny, so puny, and so safe, like here’s a fiction ghetto, here’s what you have to do, here’s your shovel, dig your hole and some people will buy it. Both Tortilla Flat and A Confederate General from Big Sur deal with characters that society has deemed depraved, alcoholic, self-tortured, and poor. (Being punk without stating it explicitly, if you want to think of it that way.) Yet, both of those authors have a love for their characters and show that however fucked-up they may appear, no matter how many flies are biting their ass when they’re impotent and the sun’s burning their skin, there is something ticking inside of them that shows a truer, deeper meaning to the human condition. It may not be pretty, it may not be rosy, but at least there’s a hand extended to show you something you might have missed. Small Town Punk is all about a dickhead who’s openly mean and has nothing to offer except an unwanted pregnancy. I mean, really, maybe I’m alone here, but independent publishing shouldn’t be about “filling a niche market” or self-aggrandizement, but putting out stuff that is just as good, if not better, than any author in the mainstream can claim.

Here, let me ruin the book for you. The main character dies of a brain tumor at the end. And since Buzz wasn’t nice to a single person in the book, I feel the same for him. Nothing. Good. Die already. And due to the fact that the author, John Sheppard, is still alive, this book can’t be a memoir – it’s fiction – so he can’t even go back on the “well, I was a fucking dickhead and I’m just giving you the truth,” standard line. Near the end, the book seems to provide its own prophesy. “It’s our condition, people like us…. We don’t believe in much of anything. We only know what doesn’t work.” Okay, you base a book on what didn’t work? Guess what? This book feels the same. –Todd (www.iuniverse.com)